Michael Chabon’s “Citizen Conn,” from the Feb 13/20 New Yorker, has arrived at a moment which makes it unexpectedly relevant, ill timed, or both. “Conn” follows the last months of Mort Feather, a comic book legend in exile. Chabon has mentioned that Fantastic Four/Hulk/Avengers/X-Men co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were points of inspiration for the story’s marginalized but brilliant Feather and its comics writer/publishing impresario Artie Conn. He has also argued that Conn and Feather are not simply stand-ins for Lee and Kirby, and this is true. The story’s invented biographies for the pair depart from those of Lee and Kirby at important times, and in important ways. For instance, readers learn that the cause of Feather’s decades-long estrangement from former collaborator Conn –or at least the core of Feather’s bitterness– has less to do with unpaid royalties or withheld credit than with the tarnishing of the two men’s friendship once Feather was ousted from “Nova Publications.”
“Citizen Conn,” told from the perspective of the rabbi at Feather’s assisted-living facility, is sentimental, earnest to a fault, and wholly unlikely to change anyone’s opinion of Michael Chabon as a writer. If it succeeds, it’s because Chabon’s obvious affection for the imaginative crackle of comics and the people who make them distracts from his soft-focus handling of creator’s rights issues.
A confluence of recent events makes Chabon’s story read as both twee and out of touch with actual disputes in the comics industry. “Conn” bizarrely positions its Kirby figure as a man to whom traditional forms of recognition and compensation are available, if only he would take them: the inscrutable Feather rips to shreds a $150,000 royalty check. (There’s also an uncomfortable fan-fic-y quality to moments in which the story’s Stan Lee analogue hangs outside Feather’s door, trying to make amends.) Near the end of Jack Kirby’s life, Marvel never made any such overtures; in fact, supporters are still actively pursuing further royalties for Kirby several years after his death. A new petition began circulating online the same week Chabon’s story was released, urging Marvel to give Kirby credit equivalent to Lee’s as the Avengers film adaptation approaches. On Feb 7, artist James Sturm called for a boycott of The Avengers for these reasons.
This week the news also broke that Marvel has prevailed in an ownership dispute against Gary Friedrich, the 69-year-old creator of the superhero Ghost Rider. Marvel countersued Friedrich after the artist filed a copyright lawsuit to reclaim the character. Friedrich, reportedly ill and struggling financially, must now pay $17,000 to Marvel, having sold art featuring the character’s flame-headed likeness throughout the years at conventions and elsewhere. A fund for Friedrich, created by writer Steve Niles, is accepting donations here. (Columbia Pictures’ Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, a follow-up to 2007’s Ghost Rider, premieres February 17.)
Chabon was under no obligation to write a story that emphasizes the historically ugly treatment of comics creators by large publishers, whether or not the lives of Kirby and others like him informed the story he has written. And in its treatment of fantastical fiction as both the product of and a balm for loneliness and alienation –as the bridge between Feather and Conn in their youth– “Citizen Conn” reads as sweet, familiar, and true. But I hope that after finishing it, will consider donating a small sum to the cause of a creator such as Friedrich as well.